Monday, June 25, 2007


“Film-making, like sex, isn't a polite enterprise. It involves a lot of mess, sweat and tears, and the bottom line is, if somebody ain't screaming, you're not doing your job.” James Woods

Movies that deal with historical events are a labyrinth promising disaster at every turn. Not only is it necessary to faithfully reproduce the customs, environment and linguistic nuances of the period, or at least justify why these have been omitted, in the case of events whose factual elements are contested, the assertion of a particular ‘version’ of the ever elusive ‘truth’ in a post-modernist world can give rise to howls of derision. Even after one obtains mastery over the facts, their method of portrayal and particular ‘angle’ can make or break the film.
Movies about contested genocides, few in number, are a case in point. Elia Kazan’s seminal, Oscar-nominated and thoroughly moving 1963 film “America America” seems to be a coming of age movie, set amidst the Armenian and Greek genocides in Anatolia, ultimately leading to the physical and temporal conclusion that America is a haven from Old World strife and Old World values, more than anything else. Atom Agoyan’s 2002 film, ‘Ararat’ on the other hand, deals with the psychology, presuppositions and emotional toll of making a movie about genocide.
Enter into the quagmire of worthy precedents, Peter Stefanidis, former secretary of the Federation of Pontian Associations of Australia and a proud, second generation Pontian. His first foray into film-making: “Pontos,” launched on Sunday , 17 June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is indeed a collection of profoundly moving images that offer a deep psychological insight into the lasting traumas created by genocide. Though only a short film, ‘Pontos’ manages in a few minutes, what Hollywood blockbusters cannot achieve in grinding hours: an insight into soul-blinding hatred, coupled with redemption and resolution. Indeed one would venture to say that what makes Peter Stefanidis’ film special is that the only presupposition that seems to exist in his mind in making his movie, is that the human condition cries out for a coming to terms with the past. As such, this unique film is a lasting testament to the need for reconciliation and tolerance and I think that it is fitting that it was being screened in Federation Square, the centrepoint of the intricate mosaic of peoples that make up our unique Victorian society.
Indeed, the fact that such a film, dealing with events that occurred almost one hundred years ago, in a land thousands of kilometres away is a living testament to how history continues to affect people and societies long after events have transpired. For Pontians, in many respects, the clock stopped after 1922. The tens of thousands of Pontians that reside in Australia today have not only had to deal with the decimation of their ancestors and their removal from their ancestral homelands but also to preserve a lost culture. That movies of this nature can therefore be screened in Melbourne in the year 2007 is as lasting testament to a remarkable and vital people.
‘Pontos’ is a movie that inverts the natural order of things in that resolution and redemption is screened on a dark backdrop of despair, whereas the brutal crimes of racial killing are juxtaposed against light, almost inviting scenery. An elderly former Turkish soldier, Kemal, played by Lee Mason, sits, looking at photographs taken at the time of the genocide. He is alone, in a darkened and sparse room. On the table next to him, there is a Pontian dagger and an ashtray, a profound symbol of the remnants of a holocaust. Kemal looks painfully at the photos as the scene switches from his living room to the Pontian countryside. There Kemal is young. He has a crazed gleam in his eye that is almost inviting and attractive. As a man who has transgressed the boundaries of the permissible, Lee Mason skillfully plays Kemal as a man who evokes trust, only to betray it with gusto and a good amount of sadism thrown in. Blinded by hatred, his solution to the problems of the age seem to have their resolution only in killing. Thus we see him and his men round up the wife and daughter of the Pontian hero Pantzo and slay them while disturbingly displaying pleasure at their appointed task. Kemal kills with the virtuosity and grace of a ballet dancer. There is no room for hot-headedness here. To him, killing is more than just an art. It is a science. To look into his empty, soulless eyes is to imbibe inhumanity.
The look of horror on Pantzo’s face (played by Ross Black), as he wrestles with the enormity of his grief and his desire for revenge is profound and is the mark of a consummate actor. It is a look I have seen before, in my own grandfather’s face as he described to me his harrowing tale of feeling Anatolia in 1922 and sent shivers down my spine. Pantzo flees his would-be slayers and seems to adopt their solution to the moral and political crisis that has befallen his homeland. In a scene the exact inverse of the previous one, Pantzo and his men hold Kemal, his wife and daughter at their mercy. Pantzo struggles to maintain his sense of humanity as Kemal, on his knees, with Pantzo’s dagger drawn at his throat, taunts him mercilessly and Kemal’s wife and daughter scream in horror. The entire moral conflict can be read in the lines of Pantzo’s face. The horrible death of his wife and daughter flash before his eyes, but he is no killer. In anger and disgust, he throws, the tool of murder, his dagger, and its scabbard, a potent symbol of the justification of the taking of human life at the murderer and goes on his way.
It is typical of the sensitivity and humanity of Stefanidis that he permits Kemal to be the vehicle of redemption in his movie. Years later, it is the elderly Kemal, still clutching to the weapon that granted him a second chance, who, playing the haunting scenes over and over in his mind and reflecting upon his crimes, feels repentance. The affection one feels for this erstwhile killing-machine is as sudden as it is overwhelming and it is the mark of a master film-maker with deep insights into the human psyche that Stefanidis can humanize and dehumanize his characters with consummate dexterity, keeping them for most of the film, teetering precariously on a tightrope between the two extremes. The remarkable and seemingly unstudied ability of Ross Black and Lee Mason to portray a gamut of extreme emotions in no small part augments this.
The genesis of the film, as we learnt in the documentary “The Making of Pontos,” screened directly after the movie, was an injunction by Network Ten personality George Donikian to Peter Stefanidis upon him presenting to the annual Pontian Genocide Workshop a short clip about that event, to come back the next year with a documentary. The ever-resourceful Stefanidis, enrolled himself in a film course and immersed himself in the genre. The end process of his steep learning curve, his calling upon friendships, obtaining advice, painstakingly researching the period and having to confront his own feelings about an event that blighted the people he loves so much is ‘Pontos’, a labour of love film that confers absolution upon the repentant and shies away from the crass nationalism that has hitherto dominated our discourse. In a revealing section of the ‘Making,’ actors Ross Black and Lee Mason reveal how they taunted each other, and forced themselves to overstep the boundaries of the friendship to ‘hate’ each other, verbally abusing and fighting on and off the set, so as to truly gain an understanding of the depth of feelings that would permit mass killing. The insights they gained were as intense as they were revolting.
At the premiere of this remarkable movie, financed and created solely by Stefanidis, the point was made that the movie was created in spite of and without the support of the various Pontian organizations whose fruitless presence in our community seems to revolve only around creating internecine strife. That a former secretary of the Pontian Federation of these organizations can say this, is a tremendous blight upon their existence and proof that in their navel-gazing, their often brutal, ill-mannered and disgusting suppression of youth endeavours, there can no longer be any justification for their bankrupt existence under their present administrators, save to feed their committees member’s egos and to act as a vehicle for the propagation of the filth that masquerades as a preservation of their dim conception of their own ‘culture.’ In doing so, these would-be Noahs have steered the Ark of Pontian culture aground upon the rocks of jealousy, ignorance and assimilation.
The Cartesian Stefanidis on this point, is vehement as he is insightful: “When I was making this movie, I just wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at our apathetic youth, our inebriated, spineless and useless community leaders, at our uncultured, uncaring and selfish Australian counterparts and at the cruel and horrible people that not only took our lands away but whose descendants want a thank you when it give us permission to see those same lands again. I feel like I can breathe again.
For me it was therapeutic, and necessary. I hope that it offers some relief to others. I really hope that it informs our first generation Pontians that we haven't forgotten. I also hope that youth see this and realise that many are NOT doing enough to help maintain the culture, and above all, being Greek and a Pontian is a privilege. The privilege does not begin with a Kotsari and end with a Serra. Anyone who believes that should join the oldies in a chorus of "I think that I am Pontian therefore I am!”

Quite apart then from his talents as a film-maker, Stefanidis’ impassioned cry is a manifesto for the cultural emancipation of the second generation. Rather than lament the marginalisation and exclusion of the youth from Greek community affairs, Stefanidis points the way forward, through bravely overstepping and transcending all obstacles coming between him and his dream. As such, he is a visionary worthy of emulation.
The Pontian song that deals with the coveted renaissance of its civilization emphatically states: «Η Ρωμανία κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει κι άλλο.» We take your leave this week, expressing another pious hope in parallel: «Το πρώτο έργο του Στεφανίδη κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει κι άλλο.» Shairetias.

First published in NKEE on 25 June 2007